Europe

Flam, Norway – Snow, Waterfalls, and Stroganoff

Our fjord adventure began when we left Oslo on an early train, headed for Myrdal. Our Norway in a Nutshell tour included many conveyances: a train ride to Myrdal, where we would take Europe’s steepest railway down to Flam. After a night in Flam, we will take a boat cruise down the fjord to to catch a bus to Voss, then a train to Bergen. After one night in Bergen, which is the capital of fjord-land, we will catch another train back to Oslo…it’s going to be a bit of a whirlwind trip, but the tour package also offers this exact same route in one day…that seems unreasonable to me.

We were promised Norway’s most scenic train route, and I would have to agree…it’s hard to edit down the photos, so you’ll have to forgive me for the over-share. The line from Oslo to Bergen is 308 miles long, which we would travel in full in a couple of days, but for today we only went half way. The line passes through rolling hills and vast pine forests.

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20140503-154125.jpg The train cuts in close to these woods, from the window you can see through the spaces between the trees and into the secret forest places. As I watched out the window, I thought about all the books I read as a child; The Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Swallows and Amazons…and I knew that if I had seen these forests as a child I would have ached to leave the train and play in those woods, making dens and climbing trees. I probably would have been able to spend the entire train ride immersed in an imaginary quest, with this landscape as the backdrop Still, as an adult, how marvelous would it be to launch yourself back into those make-believe games? I am currently reading the Game of Thrones series, so I allowed myself the luxury of imagining adventures in those woods for awhile, until the scenery started to change.

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20140503-154250.jpgWe started to hug gushing snowmelt rivers and pass waterfalls, we were working our way up to cross an enormous plateau. We were traveling on the highest mainline railway line in Northern Europe, reaching it’s highest point in Finse at 4058ft above sea level. As we climbed and climbed, patches of snow started to show on the hillsides and then, in the blink of an eye, suddenly everything was white.

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20140503-154400.jpgWe were wholly unprepared for the vast snow covered landscape. I had never seen anything else like it, this was my first time experiencing snow stretching as far as the eye can see. By the time we got to Myrdal, my jaw ached from hanging open and I had probably ingested several flies.

We disembarked at Myrdal, excited to step outside into this winter land. It wasn’t as cold as it looked, but it was still hat and gloves time.

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20140503-154517.jpgOur next trip was the Flam railway. The Flam line is 12.8 miles long and connects the main Bergen line with Sognefjord, which we would take a tour of tomorrow by boat. The line’s elevation difference is 2831 feet, and the maximum grade is 1:18, which is the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe. It passes through 20 tunnels which, excluding only 2, were all hand-made. The LCD screen in the train told us that on average, tunneling proceeded at between 116-180 man-hours per meter, which works out to be about 35-55 hours per foot. With the 5656.1 meters of tunnels, that works out to be between 649,485 and 1,020,635 hours. Let’s say the two tunnels that were machine made comprised 50% of the total length of tunnels on the line…that’s still 30 years combined manpower of just pure tunneling fun. I’m sure the conditions were tip-top as well. In total, the Flam line took 16 years to build, we finished the journey in 1 hour and 15 minutes. If you are not sick of hearing this yet, the views were great!

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20140503-160751.jpgDuring our journey, we met a cringeworthy couple from Chicago, which I am assuming really means Peoria. They had that Peoria look to them. They were kitted out with adventure clothes, huge cameras and both sported some unfortunate midwestern hair. I’m not sure how one can take a picture loudly, but they were managing it. Snap and show, snap and show. I had flipped down the top part of the window because I was sick of the reflection train’s reflection lurking around in the background of my shots. Mr. Peoria was showing John how he was managing to get ‘million dollar shots’ through the window without having to stick his hands out in the cold. I have noticed that it’s only Americans who want to show other people their pictures. No-one we have met here has dug out their phone, mid conversation, to show me a picture of what we are talking about…not one. In fact, Europeans are far less gadgety that we are…they don’t all have iPhones or enormous Samsungs, and the ones that do aren’t constantly peering at them. The only other person I have seen with an iPad out on a train was a British couple. Via some quick intel, we discovered that Mr. & Mrs. Peoria were departing directly from Flam on the fjord tour. This was a relief, as they looked like the sort of people who wanted to become travel friends…harder to shake than dog poo on your shoe. In fact, the majority of people on the train were leaving immediately, leaving the gloriously remote village of Flam to me and John.

Flam sits on a small tributary of the main fjord, nestled between mountains with a population of about 450 people. A cluster of buildings surrounding the rail platform and port included a bar, some tasteful souvenir shops and a market. About 0.5 miles up the road was our youth hostel…other than that, there was just NATURE.

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20140503-161047.jpgWe were the most remote we had been since Skye and that suited me just fine. Our hostel was lovely; we were situated in a small cabin with a kitchen and dining room, with two other dorms leading off from the main room. Beds were comfy and the views were spectacular. Having made spaghetti every night so far, we decided to go crazy and make beef stroganoff…John had been talking about this idea for days. We were in the land of ‘No Service’ on the phone, so we headed to the market a little apprehensively…you don’t need to know the language to buy ingredients for spaghetti…you just find the pasta and grab a jar with a picture of a tomato on it, which is conveniently located in the same aisle. If the jar has the world Classico on it, you are set. Bonus points for a cartoon chef with a big mustache. I shudder to think what the cartoon American looks like… Anyway, as I said, spaghetti is easy without a translator. Beef stroganoff is a whole different story. We found a packet of mix with a word that had most of the same letters as stroganoff, albeit, some with halos hovering over them and a couple of lines drawn through them for good measure. That was the easy part. For the next 20 minutes, we looked like absolute nutters, wandering around the market with the packet in hand, trying to decipher the instructions on the back. We knew we needed meat…but after an unfortunate incident in Oslo with disgusting ‘hamburger’ meat, we wanted to find some beef tips. There’s a lot of additional meat options in Norway…whale and horse for example. We hummed and hahed about reindeer for a few minutes, until our good sense kicked in and we decided to leave reindeer to the professionals. Hamburger meat it was, but what the hell does flote mean? Milk, butter, clotted calf testicles? In the land of the Norse, all these are potential candidates. We spent some quality time in the dairy aisle trying to match the words to the products. After 20 minutes of baffling shopping, we trudged up to the amused cashier who had been watching us fumble around. When John asked for some stamps, stressing ‘international’ he gave us a look with a ‘No shit, Sherlock’ feel to it. We dropped our forage back at the cabin and went for a walk to work up an appetite.

The countryside echoed with baaing sheep, bleating goats and lowing cattle (of the Highland variety!) It was a pleasant change from trams, scooter horns and the sound of rubber on the road. The spring lambs, goatlets and calfs were out and about…sheep still give John and I the stink-eye.

20140503-161000.jpgThere were a couple of waterfalls in the distance that looked promising, so we set off in that direction. We launched into what, in retrospect, was a strenuous hike up a near vertical cliff. The waterfall took several turns during it’s 700 foot drop. It was one of those ‘Oh, isn’t this nice at the bottom, let’s keep going’ situations that seemed like such a reasonable idea at 25 feet.

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There was sort of a trail. At 250 feet, as you find yourself scrabbling up a gravelly path, your anxiety meter and your heart rate are competing for 1st place.
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500 feet up, you start wondering how on earth am I going to get down???

20140503-161545.jpgEnormous hoof prints and huge piles of crap added a sense of drama to the occasion…was a cliff-side moose encounter in our future? A Manticore, mayhaps? Something told me that my chiropractor and my Mother would not approve. I must admit, the view from the top was pretty god-damn amazing. 20140503-161207.jpg

20140503-161635.jpgWe stood in the spray of the falls, alternating between the rushing water and the scene below. When the spray from the falls finally started to soak into our clothes, it was time to go back down. John took point and helped me down the hard rocky bit bits (such a gentleman) until we got to the gravel. There’s no graceful way to go down a dusty gravel path at a 1:5 grade. John elected for the foot option, I choose the crouching option, which was very effective and, I imagine, created quite the optical illusion upon observation. I was crouched down, sliding along on my feet…the incline was at such an angle that I could just cruise down the hill on my heels, plowing dirt away on each side. John commented that I looked like a bowling ball…I prefer to think that I looked like a langolier, menace included. We survived the downward climb and strutted back to our cabin, chests puffed out with victory. Stroganoff time!

When we arrived back to the cabin, it was bustling with activity. A Slovenian family of 4 was grilling outside and 3 Chinese girls were traipsing in and out, looking a bit lost. We got on the wifi and managed to translate the cooking instructions for dinner. As the meat browned and the pasta pot boiled, the Chinese girls wandered back in with three frozen pizzas for dinner. It soon became clear that a) they had never eaten a frozen pizza before and 2) they don’t have ovens in China. First up, they avoided touching any of the big dials on the front of of the range, instead they managed to find a small hidden switch that turned the oven off. This caused a bit of a delay in the stroganoff process until their improvisation was discovered and the oven was turned back on. Then they put the pizzas in the oven before it had heated up with the cardboard still included. John tried to explain the concept of pre-heating and the Slovenian mother took point on the merits of removing the cardboard first. They were convinced to wait until it was warm, which lasted all of 3 minutes until they tried again. ‘Oven not hot,’ said John, and he’s definitely the expert on making frozen pizzas. He demonstrated by touching the inside of the oven with his hand. Defeated, off they went back into their room again. They timed their next attempt precisely as the stroganoff was nearing perfection, pushing John away from the stove top to attend to their pizzas. We watched with tiny-mouths, as our dinner boiled over. John finally managed to muscle in and rescue our bubbling meal which was devoured with gusto. The oven was too small for all three of the frozen pizzas, so the whole debacle was repeated a little later. After two attempts to pre-heat the oven, we discovered they had disconnected it again. They asked, “did we break it?” “No…but don’t touch that switch” John patiently stressed, “it turns the whole oven off.” Thumbs up. Everything settled down eventually, and with full stomachs we broke out the cards and played a couple of hands of gin rummy while the wonder trio ate their third pizza in a grim silence, after which they vanished into their room. The cabin was at peace…expect there was a nagging buzzing noise in 7 second intervals which wasn’t audible before. After 5 minutes of trying to ignore it, we traced the noise back to the oven. They had flipped the switch again. I stared out the window, reminding myself that in 7 months time, we would be in the same befuddled position as those girls; fumbling around with the super toilets, spraying the ceiling with water from the bidet and probably setting fire to the house because we didn’t turn the oven off properly. I internally congratulated us for helping them instead of slaughtering them to death, and hoped that the good deed would be repaid, preferably in this lifetime…in Asia…as we try to cook rice in the dishwasher by mistake.

Since we were in the middle of nowhere, the possibility of good star viewing was high. Excited to try out the star capture feature on my camera, we set the alarm for 1:30am. The sun finally set at 10:15pm…and at 11pm there was still light in the sky. It’s easy to forget, but we are around the same latitude as Anchorage or higher. End result = very light, very early and late in the day.

20140503-161717.jpgAs it turns out, Flam produces quite a bit of artificial light, so the star capture mode was not staggering, but there were howls hooting in the night and it was very bracing to be running around outside in your pyjamas in the middle of the Norse night, although after the waterfall climb, I was still half asleep and swiftly scurried back to bed. Tomorrow was fjord day, and our ferry left at 9:00am. I fell back asleep, grateful that we were not sharing a cabin with Mr. and Mrs. Peoria, who would have undoubtedly followed us outside with their huge cameras and then spent the next 2 hours showing us their pictures until dawn broke. Dodged a bullet there.

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Categories: Europe, Norway

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